What they don’t tell you about signing up to save a life
It was only 6 weeks. Suited up with high vis lettering on my back denoting my student status (as in, please don’t confuse me with someone who knows what they are doing), sitting in the back of an ambulance with the stretcher, holding on for dear life as we swerved around corners on a code 1 call, sirens blaring.
It was only 6 weeks. But I still got an eyeful of incredible situations. As did many of my colleagues, from the stories they told over beers when the placements had finished. We laughed, we gasped, we were horrified.
But the experience divided us… those who loved it, and those who didn’t.
I loved the uniform! Unlike my corporate job, I didn’t have decide, still half asleep and fresh out of the shower, which skirt matched that blouse or remember if I’d ironed my suit pants. It was simple – student emblazoned shirt, and high vis striped pants in a matching dark blue, belt, boots and my hip holster for my stethoscope and pen. And wearing the uniform just… felt good. I felt authoritative and confident. Calm, in control. Paramedic. The title fit the no fuss outfit.
When I said I was studying paramedics, most people would gasp in awe. The usual refrains: “I could never do that!” “What an amazing job!”. I had to explain, laughing, that most of our job was not running to a multi-car rollovers, tending to gaping gory wounds, or thumping on a person’s chest until they magically wake up. The reality of the job was physical and emotional pain, mental illness, gastro (NEVER fun), and unknown cause chest pain.
I would have loved to see some gore! In fact, I highly recommend an app called Figure 1, which is like Instagram for doctors. I love scrolling through to find the trauma photos, caught between being utterly repulsed, and a morbid fascination with anatomy and resilience of the body.
I had one CPR case. Some of my friends had a couple, some had none. Trust me, it’s not something you want to see. It doesn’t end with them sitting up, suddenly alive and well.
It felt good to be capable to seeing that, of handling situations that other people would not. As a paramedic, you’re in a position of utmost privilege. People let you into their homes, they trust you, they hope that you can fix them. It’s amazing, and humbling. We see people at their most stressed. We see them when they’re covered in their own blood, vomit or faeces.
Let me get this straight – I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Not many people can say they’ve seen what a paramedic sees.
Most of the cases that paramedics attend are not life-threatening. I know that shocks the general populace and it grates on some paramedics too. I’d heard it in one form or another from the people I asked before going into the degree. And I don’t mind if the person is really having a crisis, and it isn’t necessarily medical. Mental illness is still an illness. However, I heard the frustration of my mentors about this issue. The patient could have transported themselves to hospital, the after-hours GP was going to take hours, but then again so did the ambulance.
On the flip-side, I saw cases where people with chronic illness had gone days without calling for help, when they should have. When you are in your own body, it is difficult for someone to say “This is threshold for calling an ambulance”, “THIS symptom matters”, when psychosomatic pain can be just as real as an unseen visceral pain for someone else. This is not black and white by any means.
Most of the people I saw during my 6 weeks were not dying. I was not the hero. I knew this rationally, but it was still a slight disappointment. If it was anything less than facing death, there wasn’t much we could do for them. I was stationed in the outer limits of the city, and we were rarely longer than 30 minutes from a hospital. We just made them comfortable, gave them some pain relief, and we were there. The limited scope of our practice made me feel like the proverbial ambulance “driver” that our med colleagues often taunt, tongue-in-cheek.
I think the hardest thing for me to face was seeing the worst of society. The people who struggle to clean themselves, who cannot function without drugs or alcohol, who sometimes do not want our help at all. I know I have a rose-coloured view of people. But I maintain that for my own sanity. I was surprised by the cases that stayed with me. The patient who rolled her eyes when my mentor said we were trying to help her, and snapped at me when I gave her a sympathetic glance.
Dealing with that may not have been so hard if the job didn’t require 12 hour shifts, night and day, weekdays and weekends. Any shiftworker will tell you it’s hard. Constantly changing sleep patterns, never getting enough sleep before that night shift, trying to fit in chores and food preparation in between. I’d seen my previous partner do this… I knew it would be a challenge for me. I knew I’d be EXHAUSTED.
What I didn’t expect was the isolation. It was harder to catch up with friends on the Mon-Fri 9-5 routine… and forget trying to match up shifts with another shiftworker. Socialising became hard work. I missed weekend parties and art shows and theatre events after 6pm (my shifts ended at 7pm, and I couldn’t guarantee I would finish on time). I couldn’t attend my usual dance classes or taekwondo training. I lost contact with my friends and my communities. I lost my emotional support for those hard-to-handle cases.
I don’t want to live like that.
I identified so strongly as a paramedic. Yet, I could not handle the lifestyle changes that came with the job. I grieved when I realised that, but I had no choice.
My paramedic student friends, I would love to hear your experiences and frustrations on your first prac. Please be mindful of identifying information, but please share your stories.